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Why Hospitals Should Care About Digital Accessibility

If a person with a disability showed up at your hospital, would you turn them away because they couldn’t read or fill out an intake form? Of course you wouldn’t; not only are there ethical implications, it’s also illegal.

But your website may be doing just that: unintentionally closing the door on users (and potential patients) with a disability because it wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind.

How Big Is The Problem?

Consider the following numbers: Americans with some type of disability make up 18.7% (56.7 million) of the population, according to the Census Bureau. This includes people with physical, visual, hearing, or cognitive disabilities. Of that number, 38.3 million are considered to have a severe disability.

Despite those numbers, few websites are designed with any consideration towards accessibility for users who with a disability. Hospital websites are no exception: we reviewed the homepages for the top 50 hospitals in the nation1 using an automated testing tool2 and we were unable to find a single site that didn’t violate any of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines for accessibility — a standard widely accepted as the baseline measurement for website accessibility.

But the problem is likely even worse. It’s estimated that the automated testing tools commonly used to check for website accessibility (one of which we used for the audit of hospital homepages mentioned above) are only able to detect roughly 25% of accessibility issues.

For example, one accessibility requirement is that any images present on a web page must be accompanied by embedded alternative text that provides an equivalent description of the image – known as an “alt” attribute. While accessibility tools are great at detecting whether or not an alt attribute is present for a given image, they have no way of knowing if the text within that attribute actually describes what the image is meant to convey. It could very well be gibberish, such as “picture1.jpg” – not much help to a user who is visually impaired trying to use the website via a Screen Reader, a form of assistive technology.

The truth is, accurately testing for accessibility requires testing by an actual human being — this is known as manual verification. Without it, you can have a site that meets all of the automated tests for WCAG 2.0 compliance but isn’t actually accessible.

What’s At Stake?

According to Google, 1 in every 20 searches is healthcare-related. With people increasingly turning to the internet as a source for healthcare information, hospitals must have a strong digital presence to take advantage of this huge opportunity. But if your website isn’t accessible, you could be turning away visitors, who are likely to keep searching for the information and services they want elsewhere – likely on a competitor’s site.

Users with a disability may also turn to alternative channels (such as phone calls, office visits, requesting printed materials) to obtain the information or services they’re looking for — methods that are likely to be more expensive for your organization in the long run than an accessible website.

Legal risk is also an important consideration. Litigation against companies with non-accessible websites has been on the rise in recent years — including companies like Pizza Hut, Bank of America, even eBay — and hospitals have become the most recent targets for operating websites that allegedly did not meet the government’s website accessibility standards.

Accessibility Isn’t Just For Users With a Disability

Updating your website to be more accessible can also have a positive impact on usability. Basic improvements like larger font sizes, bigger buttons, and stronger color contrast can improve the overall experience for all users.

And many of the improvements that are required specifically for screen readers — such as alternative text attributes for images and descriptive links — are also considered best practices for SEO.

How To Test Your Website for Accessibility

Here are two simple suggestions on how to start testing your website for accessibility:

  • Run the top 10 pages of your site through an automated testing tool. As we’ve already mentioned, automated testing tools won’t cover the majority of issues, but they will identify plenty of low-level issues that are relatively easy to address. A few of the tools we use and recommend are WAVE, Tenon.io, and Cryptzone.
  • Try navigating your website using only a keyboard. Open your website in the browser of your choice, then try using the “tab” key to navigate between elements and the “enter” key to interact with them. Without using a mouse, are you still able to complete important user tasks, like looking up a doctor or paying your bill? This is one of the most important accessibility tests for any website, as it will surface many of the major issues that users with a disability may run into while trying to use your site.

Next Steps

Digital accessibility is a vast and complicated affair, but it presents both opportunities and risks that shouldn’t be ignored. Our drive is to find solutions for complex problems, and we would love to partner with you as you navigate the complexities of digital accessibility. Together, we can help you build a digital presence that is more accessible for everyone.

 


Footnotes:

  1. Our list was largely based on a combination of lists from US News and Beckers Hospital Report
  2. We used Cryptzone’s CynthiaSays testing tool to perform the audit because it allows you to easily see the number of violations broken down by WCAG 2.0 compliance level (A, AA, and AAA).
August 25, 2017
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